This time last year, I had a desk-based job in a busy, open-plan office. Phones were ringing, people were chatting, and there was always somebody getting up to make a cuppa. I’d march up and down the office to go to meetings or to look for someone on the top floor of the next building. In fact, it’s amazing I actually got any real work done.
Since making a career change and going solo, I’ve been particularly obsessive about monitoring my working time. Of course, this is really important for paid projects. But I also keep track of time spent on reading, forums, training, marketing, admin, etc. If I get side-tracked or go and put the kettle on, the timer stops. I know that the time I record is now all ‘real work’, as opposed to the distraction-filled days I had in my previous working life.
But is this really a good thing? I only work a couple of days a week at the moment, so I try to cram a lot into that time. I find that I am now sometimes sitting at my desk for longer periods of time than I should be. My eyes struggle to adjust to the outside world when they stop focusing on the computer screen. My legs need a good oiling before I can get up again. So, although more of my time could now be counted as productive, that’s not necessarily the whole story. Taking those little walks at lunchtime or allowing myself to go and load the washing machine could be of benefit to my overall productivity as well as my health.
About a month ago, I worked some long hours on an intense project with a tight deadline. I knew I was doing myself damage, but it was only for a few days and I just had to get through it. I couldn’t take proper time out, so I decided to experiment with something: every time I got up to make a drink or to go to the loo, I jumped up and down 50 times to get the circulation going again. Needless to say, this was a ridiculous idea (especially if done on the way to the loo) but it got me thinking: I really need to factor in some distractions – particularly physical ones – as this no longer happens as naturally as it did in the open-plan office.
- Get a dog. This was overwhelmingly the most popular distraction people recommended on the forum. Dogs are friendly company, they take you on compulsory walks and (apparently) they can sit on your feet when you’re working in the winter. My cat is not quite so accommodating.
- Work flexibly but be disciplined. Undoubtedly, one of the perks of self-employment is flexibility. But that flexibility needs control, so we must be disciplined about how we use it. If we are early risers and are able to get things done by lunchtime, great; but we must remember to take the afternoon off and not be tempted to log on again later. If we are tied into the school run at 3.30, we can spend a few quality hours with the children and maybe catch up later. It has to be each to their own, depending on workload, personal preferences and home circumstances, and we must each take the time to think about what works for us, ensuring we have sufficient downtime.
- Get physical. Whether it’s a swim, a run, the gym or a walk with the dog, a physical break is the perfect contrast to all the hours we spend being sedentary. One member on the forum confessed to running up and down the stairs in her block of flats for a break, and now one of her neighbours has followed suit. Maybe my jumping up and down idea wasn’t totally ridiculous, after all.
- Stay hydrated. This is one that I do abide by. Staying hydrated keeps me feeling alert and less lethargic. It also means I need to get up from my desk more frequently, either to make a drink or to go to the bathroom.
- Look after your eyes. Timing and length of breaks away from computer screens is not set down in law, although it is certainly advised from a health and safety perspective. One SfEP member sets 90 minutes as a strict maximum; another uses an online tool (http://protectyourvision.org/), which badgers you every 20 minutes to take a break. The Health and Safety Executive (http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg36.pdf) advises to:
- Stretch and change position.
- Look into the distance from time to time, and blink often.
- Change activity before you get tired, rather than to recover.
- Take short, frequent breaks, rather than longer, infrequent ones.
- Look after your back. Similarly, regular breaks will help you care for your back. The HSE (link above) also advises on desk setup, which will help with posture and alignment. Two forum respondents highly recommend the Alexander Technique (http://www.alexandertechnique.com/) to help ease the strains we put on our body by sitting down at a desk for long periods of time.
Maybe reading this has tempted you to head out to the gym or visit the local kennels. But if that’s not your thing, think about what is. Whether it’s baking, ironing, shopping, having a coffee with friends, or something else, make sure you look after yourself.
Thank you to everyone who contributed on the forum. The full thread can be viewed by SfEP members on the Off topic forum: https://forums.sfep.org.uk/read.php?13,81989
Lisa Robertson set up Editwrite in April 2015, after working for a local authority for over 14 years in various children’s services planning and commissioning roles. She offers a range of editorial and writing services, including document writing consultancy. Her specialist areas are children’s services, the public sector and charities. She is an Entry-Level Member of SfEP. www.editwrite.co.uk
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.